Christmas falling at the weekend this year has made the congested winter period even more intense. Last night several Premier League teams kicked off a gruelling run of games with a rare mid-week fixture, hot on the heels of the weekend’s action. They’ll play again this weekend (17th-18th December); but not again until Boxing Day, giving many a gap of nine days. After that, most teams play again on New Year’s Eve and several will return to the field just two days later on the 2nd of January. There follows another longer gap from the last of this round of fixtures (Chelsea v Spurs: 4th January) to the next games on the 14th.
The reason for all this is well known: traditional Boxing Day and New Years fixtures are a staple of the festive season and much-loved by fans. It’s problematic for managers though, as West Brom’s Tony Pulis pointed out:
“I’m a great fan of the Christmas period but there’s other games that have been pushed in after the New Year and you look at it and think that could have been placed in that week [between this weekend and Boxing Day] and it would have made it a better spread than what it is.”
It’s a valid point; West Brom are playing on New Year’s Eve, so why do they need to play again on 2nd? That game could easily have been rescheduled for the nine-day gap that Pulis mentions, or it could take place mid-week, a few days later.
There will be a host of reasons for this, not least the desires of TV stations to show games at the weekend. However, it’s symptomatic of a wider dispute that’s been ongoing in the sport for years: do we need a Winter Break?
We were told in November that talks regarding the matter had been abandoned. Furthermore, the current TV deal – lasting until 2019 – precludes any immediate change in format for the league. The practice is so widespread in mainland Europe, however, that it’s worth weighing the matter up and considering what’s best for the league.
The primary reason for implementing a break is player fatigue. By now the season is beginning to take its toll, which is compounded by this intense run of games. Over-exertion can lead to injuries, and wet or snowy pitches might compound that. However, it’s a vital opportunity for squad rotation, with fringe and youth players getting valuable first-team experience and pushing regular starters for their shirts. For a Chelsea fan, like myself, that’ll mean seasoned internationals like Fabregas and Willian, or promising youngsters like Batshuayi and Chalobah.
Teams who seriously rely on their talismans and have less depth than the top clubs will be surveying their squad nervously, though. Sunderland’s David Moyes, for example, has a headscratcher on his hands as he weighs up whether he can afford to rest Jermain Defoe. The striker has netted eight times in sixteen appearances, and the club badly need his goals if they’re to have any hope of breaking free of the bottom of the table. But the 34-year-old might benefit from a rest and come back with renewed vigour.
With many Premier League teams fighting campaigns on several fronts in cup competitions it’s hard to see how a break would work without congestion at another time. Having it at Christmas at least allows managers the luxury of the January transfer window to replace any players injured or fatigued during the period. Again, this benefits the wealthier clubs who can afford to call on top talent. Moreover, using the window as a quick fix is rarely a good idea. A break would allow coaches to solve absences tactically, avoiding splashing the cash on bringing in new faces.
On balance, there are strong arguments for and against the possibility of a Winter Break. And, while all clubs appear to be affected equally, it seems that the current format is advantageous for the larger, richer sides. What it really boils down to is the will of the supporters. The Boxing Day and New Year fixtures have become such an important part of British football culture that the break is unlikely to ever have popular support. It’s hard to see how they can be won over by overpaid stars complaining that they need more holiday – remember the outrage over Raheem Sterling jetsetting off last season? Personally, I agree, I don’t think the advantages to the big clubs are serious enough to warrant a change and the fans deserve these fixtures.